An Unexpected Risk Factor for Dementia: Being Skinny Fat

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
August 17, 2018
Being Skinny Fat Raises Your Risk for Dementia

You may already know that cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression are among the top risk factors for dementia. But so is being “skinny fat”, especially among older people, according to a study published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging

What’s skinny fat? It’s a term coined to describe someone who is thin but in poor condition and carrying extra weight around their mid-section. Another way to think about it is thin, but flabby. Researchers also use “metabolically obese, normal weight”. 

“Many people think maintaining a specific body weight will help keep them healthy, when really the focus should be on your body fat percentage,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “Obesity –whether it’s overly fat or skinny fat – is a major health problem.” 

While losing muscle is a natural part of the aging process, studies suggest that if you lose enough muscle mass, it can affect your cognitive health. This led researchers from Florida Atlantic University to perform a cross-sectional analysis on community-based aging and memory studies to see if being skinny fat raises the risk the for dementia. 

Researchers assessed data on more than 350 participants, average age of 69, that underwent a clinic visit, battery of cognitive tests, body composition screenings (muscle mass, body mass index and body fat percentage) and functional tests (grip strength and chair stands). Skinny fat participants scored the lowest on global cognition – the intellectual process that involves perceiving, reasoning, remembering and comprehending ideas – followed by age-related muscle loss participants and finally overfat participants. But those with age-related muscle loss and overfat obesity scored lower on executive functions such as mental flexibility, self-control, speed and the part of short-term memory that handles language processing.

How does being obese or skinny fat raise your risk for dementia? There’s no clear scientific answer yet; but being overweight causes a host of problems that researchers think can lead to dementia. Obesity has ties to vascular disease, which can interfere with blood flow to the brain as well as promote beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Obesity is also a major culprit of inflammation and oxidative stress, which damages brain cells and raises the risk for dementia. And obese bodies can cause insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone that escorts sugar into cells to be used as energy. When insulin isn’t used properly, cells -- including brain cells – in a sense “starve to death”.

Obesity – whether skinny fat or overfat -- can be prevented and reversed. Here are a few tips.

  • Get a body composition screening. It will give you an idea of your ratio of body fat to lean body tissue and starting point to track progress. Body composition screenings are part of the MDVIP Wellness Program
  • Remove processed foods, artificial sugars and refined carbs from your diet.
  • Replace sugary juices, soft drinks and caffeinated beverages with water or herbal tea.
  • Add more vegetables and salads to your diet but pass on sauces and dressings. 
  • Pencil in time to work out several times a week. Workouts should include strength training and aerobic training that’s designed in a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) format, as it’s considered an effective method of fat burning.

“Research may have recently linked obesity and dementia, but we’ve understood for a long time that it plays a significant role in conditions such dementia, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis,” says Kaminetsky. “This is why the MDVIP Annual Wellness Program includes a body composition screening.”

Consult your physician before changing your diet or beginning an exercise program. Don’t have a primary care doctor? Check out MDVIP, a nationwide network of primary care physicians who focus on personalized medicine and prevention and have the time to develop close, doctor-patient relationships. Find one near you and begin your partnership in health »

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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